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Tilting at Windmills

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August 25, 2010

A MORE PRAGMATIC IDEOLOGY.... In a "Daily Dish" item yesterday, Conor Friedersdorf explored the ways in which someone like Matt Yglesias approaches public policy. Friedersdorf emphasized that Matt does not, conservative rhetoric notwithstanding, having a reflexive preference for larger government:

The desired end of Matthew Yglesias isn't to grow the American state. On some issues, he sees a bigger state as a necessary means to an end he desires (like using subsidies to increase the percentage of Americans covered by some form of health insurance), and on other issues he favors taking power away from the state. It is useful to understand these distinctions, even if you think, as I do, that the federal government should be much smaller than Mr. Yglesias would have it.

It prompted Adam Serwer to note one of my favorite observations.

[T]he idea that conservatives don't understand that liberals aren't ideologically committed to the expansion of government the way conservatives are ideologically committed to the shrinking of government is indicative of the fact that conservative conversations about liberals take place in an alternate reality. Liberals believe that government has a responsibility to help people, especially those at the margins, cope with the exigencies of the free market, but that doesn't mean we're going to support a local height requirement in Washington, D.C., that artificially inflates the price of living space because it prevents the construction of housing with greater density. The means and outcome of policy matters, rather than the size of the role government ultimately plays. Yglesias is hardly unique in that sense.

On the other hand, I'm not sure I believe that conservatives don't really understand the difference.

I continue to see this as one of the fundamental differences between the left and right -- one considers smaller government an end unto itself, while the other cares infinitely more about policy outcomes than the size of government. Liberals and conservatives don't only disagree on political goals, they differ on the kinds of goals worth pursuing.

Paul Krugman had an item on this in April: "On the right, people are for smaller government as a matter of principle -- smaller government for its own sake. And so they naturally imagine that their opponents must be their mirror image, wanting bigger government as a goal in itself. But it's not true. I don't know any progressives who gloat over increases in the federal payroll or the government share of GDP. Progressives have things they want the government to do -- like guaranteeing health care. Size per se doesn't matter. But people on the right apparently can't get that."

No, they really don't. The liberal worldview is not about necessarily increasing the size of government or raising taxes; those mechanisms are only valuable insofar as they reach the desired end-point. For the right, it's the other way around -- the ideological goal is the desired end-point.

I can imagine a scenario in which the president hosts a big meeting with all the congressional leaders, and suggests it's time to review the economic recovery efforts of the last year and a half, looking closely at what worked and what didn't, and then working on what to do next. For Dems, the task would be fairly straightforward -- let's do more of what was the most effective, and less of what was the least effective.

For Republicans, it doesn't work quite that way -- they have ideological ideals that outweigh evidence. GOP leaders could be shown incontrovertible evidence that the most effective methods of creating jobs and improving the economy are aid to states, infrastructure investment, unemployment insurance, and food stamps, and they'd still say tax cuts for millionaires is the better way to go. Why? Because their ideology dictates that government spending is bad, government intervention in the economy is bad, and tax cuts are good.

Jon Chait had a terrific piece on this larger dynamic several years ago.

We're accustomed to thinking of liberalism and conservatism as parallel ideologies, with conservatives preferring less government and liberals preferring more. The equivalency breaks down, though, when you consider that liberals never claim that increasing the size of government is an end in itself. Liberals only support larger government if they have some reason to believe that it will lead to material improvement in people's lives. Conservatives also want material improvement in people's lives, of course, but proving that their policies can produce such an outcome is a luxury, not a necessity.

The contrast between economic liberalism and economic conservatism, then, ultimately lies not only in different values or preferences but in different epistemologies. Liberalism is a more deeply pragmatic governing philosophy -- more open to change, more receptive to empiricism, and ultimately better at producing policies that improve the human condition -- than conservatism.

Now, liberalism's pragmatic superiority wouldn't matter to a true ideological conservative any more than news about the medical benefits of pork (to pick an imaginary example) would cause a strictly observant Jew to begin eating ham sandwiches. But, if you have no particular a priori preference about the size of government and care only about tangible outcomes, then liberalism's aversion to dogma makes it superior as a practical governing philosophy.

Those on the right want to cut taxes, because tax cuts are necessarily good. They want smaller government, because smaller government is necessarily good. They want to privatize public programs because privatization is necessarily good.

The left has no parallel ideological desires (wanting bigger government just for the sake of having bigger government).

The left starts with a policy goal (more people with access to medical care, more students with access to college, less pollution, more Wall Street safeguards) and crafts proposals to try to complete the task. The right starts with an ideological goal (smaller government, more privatization, lower taxes) and works backwards.

Steve Benen 2:55 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (33)

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"Great minds discuss ideas, average minds discuss events, small minds discuss
people." - Eleanor Roosevelt

I'll add that those with no mind use pejorative labels for those they decide they don't like.

Seriously, do we have any conservatives talking about ideas?

Posted by: nerd on August 25, 2010 at 3:07 PM | PERMALINK

I generally agree with this although sometimes I feel that the left can fall into the same trap, even if it may not be ideologically driven.

I feel the discontent on the left over the public option was a case in point. Based on the CBO the public option that wasn't piggy backing on Medicare rates (which was the one that had the best shot of being accepted) wasn't going to have that meaninful an impact. Yet it seems that the discontent was out of proportion to any impact on actual policy outcomes it would have had.

While i think the left can be ideological at times, i do agree that the right is far more ideological in its goals than most progressives.

Posted by: Monty on August 25, 2010 at 3:12 PM | PERMALINK

I wish I could cut and paste this posting right on to the front pages of the St. Paul Pioneer Press and the Star Tribune, and I hope that Mark Dayton's staff reads this and applies it to their campaign against Emmer, who constantly bellows an anti-big-government message, without ever comprehending what services are being provided by government.
...or maybe he does know. He's sofar refused to provide any kind of documentation as to where he plans to cut government spending. He's just sticking to the message that it must be cut, and that message is just fine for the non-reality-based right.

Posted by: gbear on August 25, 2010 at 3:15 PM | PERMALINK

Conservatives remind me of the Hardy Pioneers of Yore:

Like-minded folks banded together, formed a wagon train, and struck out to make their own version of Eden.

To do that they built a fort (gated community) to keep out The Others. Built a church, so they could all worship their specific god, then built a schoolhouse, and hired a teacher who would assure that the next generation mirrored them. Likewise, hired a mayor and a sherif, to preserve the peace, and conserve the status quo.

And their descendants are today's Grand Old Party.

Posted by: DAY on August 25, 2010 at 3:18 PM | PERMALINK

Yeah, that's why I got fed up trying to be a Libertarian. I actually do think that smaller gov't is a worthwhile goal, everything else permitting. To Libertarians, a once-per-generation economic crisis isn't enough to warrant setting aside one's rigid ideology.

Posted by: Equal Opportunity Cynic on August 25, 2010 at 3:22 PM | PERMALINK

"The liberal worldview is not about necessarily increasing the size of government or raising taxes."

No it's not. It's about taking away our freedoms. More government and higher taxes are just tactics to that end.

Posted by: Al on August 25, 2010 at 3:22 PM | PERMALINK

I disagree with the notion that conservatives are just interested in smaller government. That is what they often say, but look at the record. Also keep in mind "conservatives" include multiple distinct ideologies from libertarian to social conservatives.

Think about military. The right tends to favor wars that the left finds unnecessary (Iraq, Grenada, Vietnam, etc.) Likewise with other military expenditures.

Border patrols and more immigration laws - the right favors more government.

Drug laws, especially the criminalization of pot. The right don't mind increasing the size of government here. (Plus workers are more productive if they don't smoke pot.)

Vice laws. Its complex but the right is much more in favor of government actively working to stop n prostitution, gambling, and other "victimless vices". They also historical and still don't mind government spending resources to keep gays from meeting one another in gay bars and other venues.

Property rights. The right doesn't mind government spending money on protecting property rights whether it is going after a vandal, policing a suburb, or enforcing copyright laws.

I can think of other examples, but you get the sense.

Posted by: Objective Dem on August 25, 2010 at 3:23 PM | PERMALINK

Exactly right. Conservatives want to cut government for strictly ideolgical reasons and only provide concrete ones because they think they have to to be taken seriously in a culture that is still liberal and so still demands a practical and concrete justification for doing something. They are working very hard at changing that so that the objective of cutting government becomes self-justifying. But for now they have to at least go through the motions of providing a rationale for the things they do.

And that is how we get the right wing argument that we should cut government and taxes in order to create jobs, even if if can be shown that those policy goals do not create jobs at all. If they don't, conservatives will simply move onto some other rationale for cutting government, and then another, and another, and another until they find one that sticks. But the rationale is only a pretext for an objective they had from the start.

Posted by: Ted Frier on August 25, 2010 at 3:26 PM | PERMALINK

The ease with which you may annoy or harass a doctrinaire conservative is simply presenting an idea which the rights rigid ideology's formal structure hasn't matured yet to be able to consider . Just how else could anybody but a fictional character be so consistently right or wrong ? Our dear little friends worshiping at the feet of Limbaugh and Hannity in the shout em' down until their ears bleed harassing debate style have been poorly advised on how to deal with problems that are outside the trust fund mind set . Problems like New Orleans being below sea level for instance .
I remember listening to William Buckley debating Noam Chomsky , and wondering if the poor fellow were off his medication . Buckley could not accept a single thought without it being something of a personal challenge from Chomsky . Buckley's constant irrelevancies , diversions , as if they were something other than an aside , or to change the conversation , made him like a kid spreading the peas around his plate . Ridiculous .

Posted by: FRP on August 25, 2010 at 3:34 PM | PERMALINK

Conservatives may SAY they want smaller government, but their actions belie their words. After all, Dubya drastically increased the size of the Federal Government.

Posted by: islandgeek on August 25, 2010 at 3:39 PM | PERMALINK

What is called "conservatism" in America today is a fake, phony, trumped-up, Madison Avenue-scripted, focus-group-tested, talk-radio-programmed pseudo-ideology that has no actual content except hatred of "liberals" plus whatever the corporations pay Rush Limbaugh and Fox News to spew at the Ditto-Heads on any given day.

The purpose of modern "conservatism" is to create a brainwashed cult-for-hire that will believe, say and do whatever they are told to believe, say and do by the bought-and-paid-for corporate shills of the phony "conservative" media.

It's all about exploiting the worst instincts of weak-minded, gullible, ignorant, mean-spirited people to further the rapacious class warfare of the ultra-rich corporate oligarchy against everyone else.

Modern American "conservatism" is bogus through and through.

Posted by: SecularAnimist on August 25, 2010 at 3:42 PM | PERMALINK

Here is a post from the Digby blog from Spocko .

Right wing authoritarians don't have to "merge the files" as Dr. Altermeyer says.
The ideas stand on their own. Pull one card out of the file one minute and another out of the file the next. Read one card, put it back. Read another card, put it back. No problem.

When asked to come up with a consistent arguement they deflect, attack, stall, make up a theory or misappropriate a theory.

One thing that we don't have with Beck (and with Rush) is situations where they are truly challenged in their ideas by others.

They avoid these situations. If you want to discredit them (and perhaps force them into more ridiculous statements. We would work to set up these kind of events. Now this doesn't work for everyone. Hannity is actually very good at the "win the debate with bluster and attack" and this isn't the best method to work against him.
Yesterday, 19:01:55

I think it complements Ted Frier's conclusions .

Posted by: FRP on August 25, 2010 at 3:45 PM | PERMALINK

Size of government is irrelevant -- completely. For instance, I want smaller government vis a vis the military. Conservitards are hypocritical, of course. Just TRY cutting into the Pentagon budget and you see their priorities.

The truth is, they don't want smaller government. They just don't want to pay for anything unless it adds to their wealth or defends their power.

Posted by: candideinnc on August 25, 2010 at 3:51 PM | PERMALINK

"No it's not. It's about taking away our freedoms. More government and higher taxes are just tactics to that end."

Posted by: Al

Like our religious freedoms, or our right against unreasonable searches.

Oh, right, those are CONSERVATIVES trying to take away our Freedoms.

Conservatives not only love big government to interfer in our lives, they love big government to spend for them. Hence Alaska getting back four times as much Federal money as they pay in taxes.

In fact, Red states all do better pulling in Federal Pork than Blue states.

Posted by: Lance on August 25, 2010 at 3:53 PM | PERMALINK

Shorter version: Conservatives are fundementalists.

Posted by: martin on August 25, 2010 at 3:55 PM | PERMALINK

The government must be big enough to exercise control over Big Business or nothing Democrats stand for could be accomplished. If we have policies that limit the size of corporations then we could do with more limited government.

Posted by: Paul Siegel on August 25, 2010 at 4:05 PM | PERMALINK

I can use their "polar opposite logic" too:

Liberals are against raping babies, therefore Conservatives must be for it.

Posted by: nobody on August 25, 2010 at 4:12 PM | PERMALINK

A conservative's "ideological goal" is something on the order of "Freedom for people like me, punishment for people who are not like me." They believe that "smaller government" is the instrument that guarantees the first half of that proposition, but they don't object to "bigger government" when it guarantees the second half. As any number of people have observed, conservatives certainly believe wholeheartedly in big intrusive government when it comes to reproductive rights, sexuality, stem cells, surveillance of suspected terrorists, accused criminals, etc. I think it's because the people affected fail the "people like me" litmus test.

Posted by: FlipYrWhig on August 25, 2010 at 4:16 PM | PERMALINK

Modern conservatives are not necessarily calling for smaller government, just one that is more authoritarian so any perceived or real threats to their personal fortunes can be summarily quashed while such accummulation of wealth can go on unabated!

As far as those poor bastards who haven't wealth? Well, the Social Darwinian precept of natural selection - the rich are the fittest, and all others are pin-heads - is all those rich bastards have to use to justify their authoritarian tendencies to themselves! -Kevo

Posted by: kevo on August 25, 2010 at 4:31 PM | PERMALINK

What conservatives are ideologically committed to would more accurately be described as meaner government, not smaller.

They're not thinking "the state should/should not do X", they're thinking "screw THOSE people, they're not like ME, and people like ME are awesome!". Sometimes it means cutting some form of spending (which they think largely goes to people not like them), other times it means taking the force of gov't & cranking it to ever more ridiculous levels, just depends on the situation.

Posted by: anon E. Mouse on August 25, 2010 at 4:31 PM | PERMALINK

Al is a parody troll, please don't feed him.

Posted by: citizen_pain on August 25, 2010 at 4:41 PM | PERMALINK
What is called "conservatism" in America today is a fake, phony, trumped-up, Madison Avenue-scripted, focus-group-tested, talk-radio-programmed pseudo-ideology that has no actual content except hatred of "liberals" plus whatever the corporations pay Rush Limbaugh and Fox News to spew at the Ditto-Heads on any given day.

The purpose of modern "conservatism" is to create a brainwashed cult-for-hire that will believe, say and do whatever they are told to believe, say and do by the bought-and-paid-for corporate shills of the phony "conservative" media.

It's all about exploiting the worst instincts of weak-minded, gullible, ignorant, mean-spirited people to further the rapacious class warfare of the ultra-rich corporate oligarchy against everyone else.

Modern American "conservatism" is bogus through and through.

I can think of nothing to add to this fantastic post from Secular Alarmist. So I'll just quote him and, like the kids today, type:


Posted by: Mark D on August 25, 2010 at 4:44 PM | PERMALINK

Scratch the veneer off of the so-called republicans and you will see they are Fascists that espouse Totalitarianism, corruption, and Incompetence.

Just remember the so-called republicans Mein Kampf's words and actions under the bush/cheney miserable failure administration.

These "things" have not changed, they have leaped off the cliff into the arms of hard lined conservatism/Fascism.

Posted by: ghostcommander on August 25, 2010 at 5:08 PM | PERMALINK

Oddly enough, I just ran into a 'libertarian' blog-post that made the same kind of logical error (though of course from a libertarian framework). Scott Sumner [http://www.themoneyillusion.com/?p=6593&utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+Themoneyillusion+%28TheMoneyIllusion%29, with a follow-up discussion at volokh.com , where I ran into Sumner's post ] projects the opposite of his views onto liberals, or, to put it a bit differently, assumes that policies that may have represented liberals' pragmatic views at certain times were in fact the result of liberals' principles. (One of his examples is that "They favored 90% tax rates on the rich. Today they favor rates closer to 50% on the rich." He then argues that it is libertarians' salutary influence that has made liberals change their principles from believing in 90% tax rates to 50% tax rates).

Posted by: PQuincy on August 25, 2010 at 5:09 PM | PERMALINK

Dunno if it's been noted yet, but in practice, conservatives support growth of government in each and every case where said growth benefits them personally or as a movement.

Just show conservatives a big-govt. boondoggle that'll put money in their pockets or votes in their column; they never fail to flip-flop.

Posted by: Half Elf on August 25, 2010 at 5:14 PM | PERMALINK

I think "Al" must be Raiders owner Al Davis, whose longtime commitment to the deep passing game for the sake of the deep passing game is not unlike the "small government" mantra of the right wing. He's less concerned with winning than with stocking his roster with fast receivers and a guys with big arms. And his priorities can be seen clearly in the Raiders' recent record.

Other NFL teams, meanwhile, are interested in winning football games, regardless of whether that's accomplished through a power running game, a West Coast offense based around short passes, or an unpredictable pass-heavy offense like the Saints. If it produces wins, they don't care what the approach is.

That's Yglesias.

Posted by: PCash on August 25, 2010 at 5:18 PM | PERMALINK

I think this whole "small" government "big" government rhetoric is a huge verbal con, a piece of Nixon/Ailes/Atwater/Rovian propaganda. What conservatives mean by "big" government is the "social insurance," civil rights, and environmental rules part of the New Deal government frame work. They are ferocious proponents of Government where it comes to defending property rights such as patent and copyright, regulating individual sexual conduct and punishing sexual activity they don't approve, and using Government authority to punish the dissent and intimidated the "enemies within" and expand Government's military and police activities. Government has not shrunk under one Conservative President or Congress these last 40 years. It has just shifted be more oppressive, more authoritarian, more militaristic, while creating an environment of more economic and environmental insecurity for the majority while protecting the interests of the financial elite.

Posted by: sherparick on August 25, 2010 at 5:29 PM | PERMALINK

I'd like to bolster what others have said about conservatives not truly being for "smaller" government.

They are for smaller taxes, but not smaller government.

They are for a government that has the power to tell you how to have sex, and with whom. They favor the government having the power to decide whether its citizens live or die, via the death penalty. And to imprison citizens who burn the flag. They favor greater government power to invade citizens' property, and arrest, detain, and search individuals. And they favor more militaristic adventures by the government.

The only time conservatives truly want smaller government is when it comes to taxes to help the poor, or regulations to help people who are not clean white Christian folk. So a government with the power to imprison citizens without court review (Padilla) is just fine, but being required to pay an extra dollar in taxes for food stamps is an unconscionable infringement on freedom.

In other words, conservatism is selfishness, plain and simple.

Posted by: Steve H in SLC on August 25, 2010 at 5:31 PM | PERMALINK

The right loves tax cuts because they overwhelmingly benefit the rich. They hate social spending because it overwhelmingly helps the poor.

It ain't rocket science.

Posted by: Rob Roser on August 25, 2010 at 5:54 PM | PERMALINK

My ideas on the part about the regressives wanting to enlarge government are as follows:

They have two actual, as opposed to stated, goals. The first is to get their hands into the government til. For examples you only have to look at all the war profiteers and the K St. project.

The second is to advance their fundamental authoritarianism by controlling just about every aspect of people's lives imaginable. Both of these goals require an expanded government so that is what they give us even as they mouth protestations about smaller government. I suspect that many of them don't begin to understand how their primary goals conflict with their secondary goal of reducing government.

Posted by: Texas Aggie on August 25, 2010 at 8:59 PM | PERMALINK

I'll paraphrase this from memory. On the Daily Show a while back John Oliver was interviewing Republicans at their meeting in Hawaii about Hawaii's public health care plan. Most knew little about it (no surprise for an out of state visitor). What was interesting was how after some back and forth questioning John Oliver would explain clearly how well it was working and how it had been in place for some 40 years. The Republican reply was along the lines of "that's interesting but it can't work because government run health care is bad." The contrast between evidence and denial was awesome.

Posted by: JohnK on August 26, 2010 at 12:35 AM | PERMALINK

I looked up the clip:


At the very end the woman says - I don't know about Hawaii ['s health care]. I do know as a general rule it [government mandated health care] does not work.

Posted by: JohnK on August 26, 2010 at 1:38 AM | PERMALINK

"Progressives have things they want the government to do -- like guaranteeing health care. . ."

Actually, I think that progressives don't even want that, necessarily. If the private sector could provide adequate health care to nearly all Americans at a reasonable price, there would be no push for government-sponsored or government-mandated health insurance. The sentence would be better worded as: "Progressives have things they feel ought to be done, like guaranteed health care . . ." It is only the inadequacy of the private sector in doing this that puts it in the realm of government action.

Posted by: Daniel Kim on August 26, 2010 at 8:25 AM | PERMALINK



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